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Why Are There So Many Churches?
The answer in matter-of-fact terms is , NO!!!
So, is there a "correct" Church, can one be right, and if so, are ALL the others wrong?
Backman, Milton V. Jr. Joseph Smith's First Vision. 2d ed., rev. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1980.
The "War of Words and Tumult of Opinions"
An Era of Ecumenism
One of the widely-publicized religious characteristics of modern America is the powerful movement of Christian unity. Today there is a constant, friendly dialogue between Protestants of various denominations and between Protestants and Catholics. This spirit of ecumenism is beginning to create new religious alignments. For example, after most Congregationalists united with a body called Christians, these two societies merged with former members of the Evangelical Church and the German Reformed Church, creating the United Church of Christ. At the time of writing (1970) plans are being discussed for the uniting of this society with eight other Protestant faiths which would produce an estimated membership of twenty-five million.
The modern spirit of unification and denominational cooperation is evident today in many sections of western New York. During the summer of 1958, the Presbyterian minister of Shortsville, a hamlet located about eight miles south of Palmyra, was hospitalized and members of this congregation united in weekly worship with the Methodists of Manchester village. A few miles south of Manchester, in Canandaigua, Baptists and Presbyterians have merged permanently, creating a Baptist-Presbyterian Church.
The modern ecumenical movement is partly the result of a new reformation which is de-emphasizing dogma. While one spectrum of Protestantism is clinging to the historic or traditional beliefs, another wing within most large Protestant [p.91] societies has endorsed a new theology in the sense that they are reinterpreting classical Protestantism and are popularizing concepts that do not harmonize with the old-time religion. As a result of the increasing acceptance of a liberalized theology, striking diversity of opinion has evolved within many Protestant congregations and Catholic parishes. The views of some Baptists are more in harmony with the beliefs of many Methodists and Presbyterians than they are with the espoused convictions of many other Baptists. To avoid conflict, many ministers do not preach from the pulpit precise descriptions of belief. Many theologians are emphasizing the need for each generation to formulate its own creed and for each individual to determine his own patterns of faith. A few years ago, after a group of Protestant ministers gathered socially, one of the clergy suggested that his colleagues discuss a traditional Christian tenet, such as the fall, the atonement, or life beyond the grave. Because this preacher dared suggest that the spiritual leaders engage in such a doctrinal discussion, he was regarded by some as an intellectual curiosity.
An Age of Theological Discord
Although the spirit of ecumenism has engulfed many Protestant congregations of the twentieth century, one hundred and fifty years ago members of these same denominations were engaged in innumerable theological confrontations. Revivalists and lay members engaged in numerous and vigorous debates concerning doctrines. Authors wrote and circulated countless polemical theological treatises. Christians argued vehemently over doctrines that today are seldom discussed in most congregations of the Genesee country. In describing the historical setting of the First Vision, the Prophet Joseph Smith aptly declared:1
My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and [p.92] Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
What was the nature of the theological struggle dividing Christians in the neighborhood where Joseph lived in 1820? What were the doctrines that precipitated the "war of words and tumult of opinions" which erupted in the Genesee country in the early nineteenth century?
These questions can partially be answered by determining the location of the churches that had been constituted prior to 1820 in the area where Joseph Smith lived, by examining the creeds adopted by these Protestants, and by investigating the controversial religious tracts which were circulated in western New York at the tune of the First Vision.
Congregations in Joseph Smith's Neighborhood
Within a radius of eight miles of the Smith farm, four Protestant denominations had organized congregations and were holding meetings regularly in 1820--Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. In addition to four congregations of Friends, within eight miles of the Smith farm there were three Presbyterian societies and two Baptist congregations; and at the time of the First Vision four groups of Methodists were worshipping regularly in the towns of Palmyra and Farmington.
Within fifteen miles of the Smith farm other Protestants had organized and were holding weekly Sabbath services in 1820. Congregationalists and Episcopalians were meeting in Canandaigua. Freewill Baptists were worshipping regularly in [p.93] Junius; Eastern Christians or members of the Eastern Christian Connection were assembling in West Bloomfield; and Episcopalians of Palmyra sporadically assembled to worship according to the rites of their church.
Although the views of the Universalists were also being fanned in the area by means of pamphlets written by theft apologists and by a few enthusiastic spokesmen living within seven miles of the Smith farm,2 there is no evidence that Roman Catholics had constituted a society in that section of New York, nor are there records informing us that Catholics were active participants in the war of words that rocked the Genesee country in the early nineteenth century.
When Joseph Smith identified the denominations engaged in a theological confrontation, he mentioned three faiths, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. It is understandable why the Prophet referred to these societies, for they were three of the four faiths who had organized congregations within a few miles of his log home, and members of his family divided theft interests primarily between the Presbyterians and Methodists. The only Protestant group not mentioned by the Prophet which had organized prior to 1820 in the neighborhood where he lived was the Society of Friends. Being opposed to a salaried clergy, Quakers did not support their religious leaders financially and few Quaker missionaries were preaching in the Genesee country at the time of the First Vision. Most Friends lived peaceably on their rural farms and seldom engaged in rigorous debates with other Christians. The literature published in the vicinity where Joseph lived does not include debates between Quakers and other Protestants, but does include controversial debates, sermons, or vehement discussions emphasizing distinct theological positions of the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Eastern Christians, and Universalists. Consequently, even though [p.94] young Joseph undoubtedly learned some of the peculiar tenets of the Quakers, he did not mention this religious body as a major participant in the war of words.3 However, as the Prophet considered the tumult of opinions which created a theological barrier among Christians, he probably not only remembered disputes between Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, but also contemplated some of the unusual beliefs held by the Friends and other Protestants.
Baptism a Source of Contention
One doctrine which precipitated innumerable theological debates and produced a noticeable "tumult of opinions" among the early settlers of western New York was the belief concerning baptism. What are the prerequisites for baptism? Are infants proper subjects for this sacrament? What is the proper mode of baptism? What is meant by baptismal regeneration? These were questions which were continually discussed by Genesee farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and ministers.
Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians unitedly insisted that infants were proper subjects for baptism and that sprinkling and pouring were proper modes. Children, many argued, are baptized into future repentance and faith, for the efficacy of baptism is not confined to the occasion when it is administered. It is a sacrament, some added, that replaces circumcision, which was a token of God's covenant with Abraham. Baptism, therefore, is a sign or indication that God will tend to save the children of believers. And members of these denominations asserted that the quantity of water performed in this rite was not important.4
[p.95] Replying to those arguments, the Baptists and Eastern Christians insisted that, according to the Bible, the essential prerequisites to baptism were faith and repentance, and that since infants could not believe nor repent, small children were not proper subjects for that ordinance. There is no scriptural warranty, they added, for the belief that circumcision was replaced with baptism, nor is there a New Testament reference of an infant being baptized. Although they admitted that there were references in the Bible to all within a household being baptized, these Protestants declared that there was no scriptural evidence that there were infants in these families. Moreover, members of these societies emphasized that immersion was the only proper mode of baptism. The Greek word "baptizo" from which the English word "baptism" is derived, they explained, means immersion; and in the New Testament this rite was compared to a death, burial, and resurrection. Sprinkling and pouring, they concluded, are not symbolic of a burial and are modes of baptism which are not in harmony with New Testament Christianity.5
In response to arguments employed by Baptists to support their conviction concerning baptism, some ministers charged that Baptists incorrectly cited the baptism of Jesus as an example of the recommended form of this sacrament. John the Baptist, some contended, was baptizing Jesus as part of a Jewish rite, not as a Christian ordinance. John's baptism was one of repentance and preparation for the kingdom which was to come, and was not the same as the rite administered by the apostles.6 Moreover, theologians of the early nineteenth century reasoned that there is only one instance of early Christians baptizing possibly by immersion, and that was the case of Philip and the eunuch in which the rite was performed "accidentally" by plunging the candidate in the water. Even in this instance, some specified, there is [p.96] no way of determining the depth of the water; and since baptisms were performed, they explained, in prisons and homes and in places such as Jerusalem where there was a lack of sufficient water to immerse candidates, it is inconceivable that all early Christians were baptized by total immersion. "Surely," one apologist declared, "those who can believe that the jailor and his household were immersed under" a variety of "forbidding circumstances, can believe anything they wish." When Paul referred to being buried in baptism, men further reasoned, he meant in a pure symbolic sense, for we are not really baptized into the death of Christ.7 Furthermore, men asserted that the word baptizo has more than one meaning and includes the concept of wetting or washing with water.8
Most Protestants of western New York also replied to the Baptists by insisting that we should not deny our infant children baptism. "If you say," one man declared, "that infants must not be baptized, because they cannot believe, do you not also say in effect that they must not be saved because they cannot believe?" Faith, some insisted, is only a requirement of adults, not children. Since "it is clear that baptism succeeds circumcision, as a seal of the same covenant, … of course it ought to be administered to our infant offspring."9
Baptists and Eastern Christians were not silenced by the arguments advanced by their Protestant opponents, for such reasoning merely added fuel to the fire of contention. Most Protestants, they retorted, "are ever restless and uneasy, endeavoring to maintain and support, if possible, their unscriptural practice of infant baptism," which should more properly be labeled "infant sprinkling."10 Christ's baptism, they insisted, is an example which all should emulate. Following the precepts taught by the Savior, the apostles baptized only those who had faith and only performed the ordinance by immersion. "The apostolic churches," they added, "consisted only of baptized believers, or of such who were baptized upon [p.97] profession of their faith." Our critics, Baptists concluded, have failed to provide any scriptural warranty for infant baptism or of a baptism performed by sprinkling.11
One of the most perplexing concepts that divided Protestants in the area where Joseph lived was the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. In 1818, William Bacon delivered a sermon in the Presbyterian church of Waterloo which incited many settlers of the Finger Lake country. Individuals who profess that baptism is regeneration, he charged, maintain incorrect opinions. "Baptism is not regeneration," he asserted. "Everyone who knows from experience, what it is to be born again, knows it is not baptism."12
In an attempt to clarify the Episcopalian position concerning baptismal regeneration and expose the "misrepresentations" appearing in Bacon's work, Rev. Henry U. Onderdonk published two tracts in Canandaigua in 1818. Regeneration, he explained, means a change of state or character and is a change from being out of to being within the visible church. This change, he continued, "is effected in baptism, and by the Spirit or Holy Ghost; the minister being His agent.…Hence Christian baptism consists of two parts; viz: washing done by the minister; and regeneration effected by the Holy Ghost."13
Onderdonk made no attempt to define precisely the term "baptismal regeneration," but recited various conflicting theories concerning the meaning of these words. He emphasized that regeneration, when coupled with baptism, might be interpreted in either a figurative or a literal sense. What is important, Onderdonk suggested, is that the term is scriptural. After citing Titus 3:5, the rector insisted that the term "washing of regeneration" was another method of saying baptismal regeneration. Concluding his defense, Onderdonk [p.98] stated ambiguously that the precise meaning of the phrase was a "mystery; revealed in scripture, but not to be explained by men."14
Although immediately prior to the First Vision a heated debate concerning baptismal regeneration was going on in the area where Joseph lived, the war of words did not center on the subject of the necessity of baptism. While Episcopalians were accused of holding to the essential nature of the ordinance, Onderdonk, one of the leading spokesmen of that faith in the area where Joseph lived, refused to be precise in his interpretation of this doctrine. Meanwhile, Calvinist Baptists and Presbyterians living in the Genesee country definitely contended that baptism was not essential, but was a sign of one's regeneration.15 Also, the Methodists emphasized that baptism was a symbol of the new birth. Even though John Wesley commented that the church supposes that "all who are baptized in their infancy, are at the same time born again" or regenerated, Methodists of the early republic did not teach that baptism was necessary for salvation. It is not to be assumed, Methodists exclaimed, that a person cannot be saved nor regenerated without baptism.16 Quakers agreed with other Protestants in rejecting the essential nature of that ordinance. In fact, Friends rejected all sacraments, denying that one should be literally baptized by water.17
Since some members of the Smith family were "proselyted to the Presbyterian faith" and others, including the Prophet, "became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect," it would appear that immediately prior to the First Vision family discussions might not have concentrated as much on the subject of baptism as on the concept of predestination versus fore-ordination.18 While Presbyterians and Methodists agreed that [p.99] infants were proper subjects for baptism, that sprinkling was a proper mode for this rite, and that baptism was not essential for salvation, they disagreed sharply concerning man's role in the salvation experience.
What you have just read is the testimony of a modern day Prophet of God. To his testimony I humbly add my own. What you have just read is divine revelation and is absolutely true and correct. This I humbly submit in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
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